Homeless Advocates' Investigation And Recommendations Concerning Frozen Veteran

NOTE: Please read the blog entry below this one, as this is a follow-up to the previous blog post.

The investigation into the death of a homeless veteran right outside of Washington, DC's New York Avenue Shelter continues. As if his wrongful death isn't sad enough, those who work for DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) and for the shelter have gone into "self-defense mode" and seem to be more intent on covering their tracks than they are on finding out the truth. Should we expect more? also of note is the fact that the homeless and homeless advocates are gathering facts about this case more quickly than the government. DHS is doing its own internal investigation. And we all know how those things go -- self-defense all the way.

On a more positive note, I was able to get the name of the deceased. The man's name was Luther "Sarge" Hill and he was ex-military. It's always good to be able to refer to a person by name, as the system has a way of often dehumanizing people -- especially homeless people and others whom they choose to ignore, mistreat or deny ever existed. It is good to be able to call Mr. Hill by name and acknowledge the fact that he had family and friends that will miss him and mourn his loss (even if they weren't there for him in his last days). I'm not sure how old he was or what war he fought in, though I'll venture to guess that he served in Vietnam. knowing that he died such a horrific and unjust death after serving his country tends to pull the heart strings of many -- even those who disagreed with the U.S. mission in Vietnam. It serves to highlight the fact that the U.S. government fails to take adequate care of its own and is all the more reason for people to refuse to enlist. If seeing the fate of those who have served and been dropped like a bad habit by the U.S. Government doesn't discourage one from joining the military, I don't know what will.

The death of Sarge was the last of many things discussed this morning at the COHHO (Coalition Of Housing and Homeless Organizations) meeting. But it became the highlight of the meeting. after all, if advocates for the homeless and/or government agencies that serve the homeless can't prevent hypothermia deaths, they are rendered useless and irrelevant. That said, no one can rightly be "blamed" for Mr. Hill's death. It is not merely because he chose to keep his beer and remain outdoors during a freeze, but rather because there was no established protocol for dealing with people who refuse to dispose of their alcohol and/or drugs but are in dire need of shelter. The thrust of our efforts is toward preventing this type of tragedy from recurring.

As it turns out, Washington, DC used to have "wet shelters" where a person could enter with their alcohol. There has been discussion of possibly bringing them back. It would seem that those who formulate regulations for shelters would be more intent on saving lives than they are on forcing their concept of "morality" on shelter seekers. If this ever proves to be the case, it may cause them to recreate the wet shelter.

But, irrespective of what systemic changes are created in hindsight, there is still the fact that shelter employees didn't use all of the resources at their disposal to save Luther Hill's life. A mustard seed of compassion should've caused an employee to refuse to leave Mr. Hill until it was certain that he would spend the night indoors somewhere -- whether at a friend's house, another shelter, the hospital or jail. Anything beats what happened. An employee could have called the police to initiate an "FD-12" (forced detention), as any person who is deemed to be a danger to themselves or others can be forced to receive help.

Police are hesitant to perform an FD-12 because of the possibility of a lawsuit. If a court determines that the person was not a danger to themselves or others, the police department will end up paying the "victim" whose life they were trying to save. This encourages the police to ignore the person who is making irrational choices and creates job security for the morgue. It's high time that we eliminated the liability for saving a person's life and penalized neglect. We need to reverse policies that are designed to "thin the herd" and deny much-needed services to the poor along with their unintended consequences (and I'm giving the government the benefit of the doubt on this one).

Over the next few weeks, this issue will be raised at council hearings and other meetings that pertain to the homeless, culminating at the December 13th meeting of the DC ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) where representatives from various agencies of the local government come together with homeless advocates and service providers on a bi-monthly basis to discuss what is being done to address homelessness. Let's hope that no one else freezes to death before (or after) that day.

That brings me to my final point (for now) which is that homeless advocates and service providers need to develop a rapid-response system for dealing with those who might otherwise remain in the elements during a freeze. We need to be able to respond to situations like the one that claimed the life of Luther "Sarge" Hill and to disseminate information about the rights of homeless people as well as available services to the homeless. While reaching out to the homeless at the shelters and in the streets, we also need to better train shelter employees in how to deal with extreme situations. The grants which were recently awarded to SHARC may very well enable us to begin this process. let's hope -- and take decisive action.

Eric Jonathan Sheptock
Chairman of SHARC (Shelter, Housing And Respectful Change)
Cell phone: (240) 305-5255
425 2nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2003
Click the following hyperlinks:
ALERT DC (Text/E-mail 4 Bad Weather/Disaster)
BRIDGE: A Compilation of Social Services
Help me get people..... OFF THE STREATS
My Blog @ S.T.R.E.A.T.S.


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